Live with the Flow, Baby

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Three years since the grand endeavor of Nothing But Comics was started, but also since visionary anime director Shinichiro Watanabe unleashed Space Dandy to the world. It being one of my personal favorite animes, I wanted to celebrate one anniversary with another and try to add my own analysis to the admittedly insightful critiques already in the ether…

Space Dandy is about a dandy guy, in space. He makes his living hunting for rare aliens and taking them to a registration center for reward money, which he usually spends going to a breasturant named Boobies. His ultimate ambition is to buy the chain of restaurants and eat every meal there. Until then, he’ll buy a cup of coffee and spend a couple hours oogling the waitresses. This aspect of the show turns some people off and there’s no easy defense for it. Space Dandy is a show that makes fun of the things it loves; be that classic american films or anime cliches like fanservice (scenes in anime to please fans, usually sexual in nature). While the titular Dandy wanting to spend all his free time at Boobies sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is and the show knows it.

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Like Watanabe’s more renowned works, Cowboy Bebop and Samurai ChamplooSpace Dandy makes mundane and human problems like poverty, hunger, boredom and even lust fodder for stories. Dandy and his crew-mates, an outdated vacuum cleaner named QT and a lazy cat-like humanoid named Meow, often suffer from hunger and boredom due to their lack of success in capturing rare aliens. Several episodes have the trio or even two of them simply chilling while the third member goes off on an adventure. One episode had QT fall in love with a coffee maker while Dandy and Meow sat in the space ship trying to figure out how to pick up chicks. Another episode had Dandy trying to help an alien girl find her family under the guise of taking her to the registration center. Beneath all the psychedelics and Boobies is a show with hidden depth and meaning masquerading as a Johnny Bravo in space. What the show is truly about, is up for debate which is half the fun. I can rewatch all 26 episodes twice a year and still find new possible messages.

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Some have postulated that Space Dandy is a show about artistic freedom. Apparently the anime industry is becoming very stifling, and some have grabbed onto some of the show’s imagery and it’s antagonists like the Gogle empire (it’s a thing, Google it) who are constantly trying to capture Dandy, as meta-commentary by the creators on the merits of art without limits. I’ve always liked the idea that the show is about having fun and enjoying life, while Watanabe’s Bebop and Champloo centered on dealing with your past. The respective casts of both have some situation they’re running from or eventually deal with, Dandy is notoriously tight-lipped about his past other than suddenly dropping that he used to be a surfer, a trucker and has an ex-girl friend from the 4th dimension. Dandy lives in the now, even when his past creeps up on him. This brings me to probably the coolest but wildest fan theory, that Space Dandy is actually a metaphor for Buddism.

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In the episode “A Race in Space is Dangerous, Baby”, Dandy enters a race trying to upstage a more popular diner at Boobies. He winds up millions of years in the future and finds a statue of himself like the one above. Dandy is confused and by the next episode, it seems like the events of the previous one didn’t happen. This is par for the course for the show, the characters may die, get turned into zombies or other insane circumstances only to barely mention them in the proceeding stories.

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By the finale, it’s revealed that many of the stories occurred in alternate universes. Dandy had explained that when they use warping (faster than light speed travel in the show), they’re actually transferring their consciousness to another Universe that is further along in time. While the characters may remember their time as zombies, this explains why they appear normal later on. Also of interest is Dandy’s interactions with his crew mates, at times he’s dismissive and even rude to them while others he’s adamantly referring to them as friends. These Dandies have different experiences respectively, one may have spent less time with QT and Meow while the other has grown much closer to them over extended interaction. These reactions are important, as I believe they add a crucial piece to the Buddhism theory, that how Dandy treats his friends affects his ascension through karma.

Dandy’s primary goal is to go to Boobies as much as possible, while at times it seems Dandy is simply lonely and wants to fall in love. Part of Dandyism is the act of pretending not to care, while putting enormous effort into personal appearance. Dandy’s failure to find love could be channeled into going to Boobies where he feels comfort and admiration. This pursuit of temporary pleasure puts him away from the Buddhist tradition of searching for true enlightenment. I brought up karma earlier, and it should be noted that episodes where Dandy and his crew die or turn into zombies usually involve Dandy being incredibly selfish and vain. Stories where he acts selflessly, such as helping Adelie find her grandfather, usually have a happy ending. Also of note is that Dandy often earns love from people when he’s not trying to impress or court them. Another way of putting it, is that people like Dandy for who he is rather then who pretends to be.

The Dandy that was rewarded with a giant golden statue was likely one that had put his selfish desires to rest and brought enlightenment to his Universe. In the last moments of the finale, Dandy is offered by god to take his place as overseer of the Universe. Dandy turns it down because that would mean he wouldn’t have a body to inhibit and go to Boobies, thus allowing the Universe to restart without a deity watching over it. While Dandy is Dandy in every Universe, he’s not always acting in a way that earns him the best of karma which often gets him in trouble. From this angle, the Buddhism theory holds water although it doesn’t seem entirely conclusive.

What is easier to see from a wide view of the show is that each character is searching for something: Dandy for love, Meow a more exciting life than he would have on his home planet, QT a purpose helping others, ect. Everyone wants something but it falls just out of their reach. Despite seeing the impossible happen almost daily, their deepest desires are mundane but closely unattainable.

At the time of its airing, Space Dandy did very well ratings wise against even live-action television (although to be fair its first season aired in the winter). Now it seems mostly overlooked or possibly forgotten. The shallow absence of an overarching plot, random stories that span a wide swath of genres and a relaxed approach to characterization that made Bebop and Champloo so enriched, puts the show at a distant third for Shinchiro Watanabe’s works. However, by focusing on an episodic and free flowing story structure, Space Dandy never felt boring. It may often seem familiar, like Dandy going to a high school satellite with the plainest girl as his prom date and becoming prom king, but it’s never boring. It’s a fun show, precisely because its about having fun even at the cost of becoming god.

It’s about living in the moment, even when that moment involves starving or being attacked by living plants. Three years later, I still love the show now as much as I did when it first aired. It was the first anime to be simultaneously broadcast in America and Japan, fitting since the show carries many Western influences in its DNA. It may be too soon to have seen its actual impact on the anime industry, but it offers a surprising viewing experience for those willing to commit to it.

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